OUR recent trip to Orkney included a visit to one of the largest contracting businesses on the island – J and S Hay – which is now run by three brothers, Martin, Steven and Duncan Hay, who are better known as Marty, Stevie and Duncy.

The Hay family have been in the contracting game for some time now, having initially started out in the late 1950s with threshing mills and balers. Their first combine was a Claas Mercury with an 8ft header and in 1965 they purchased a Ford 3000 tractor.

Like most, it's changed days since then though as the contracting business has expanded massively. The Hays now sow roughly 2500 acres of cereals and grass seed each year and cut 1500 acres of silage but at peak have cut up to 2700 acres with their self-propelled forager which they have since sold.

It's not just the contracting work across Orkney which keeps the boys busy though, as they farm their 150-acre unit, Howe, in Birsay, a district situated in the north west of the island and rent a further 350 acres nearby. They run 125 suckler cows, 100 breeding ewes and a flock of 20 Kerry Hill pedigree sheep.

The family also grow 50 acres of spring barley which is mainly grown for seed, as well as bere barley – a six-row barley variety which has been grown on Orkney for thousands of years – to produce beremeal bannocks, which are a staple food to Orcadians, so I am told!

It's very much a team effort on this family farm, as Marty and Duncy (who also works as a lorry driver for a local haulier) carry out the contracting work alongside three part-time staff and additional staff at silage and harvest, while Stevie mainly works with the livestock.

* The majority of questions were answered by Marty, with a little input from Duncy!

How would you describe farming/contracting on Orkney?

– I would say we are over equipped with our machinery for the number of acres there are on Orkney. Our spring comes a month later and winter comes a month earlier, so we are always working behind everyone on mainland Scotland. The sowing season for us doesn't usually kick off until around April, 10 and we are still sowing well into May. In fact, it's not unusual to sow an arable silage mix in June and the second cut wouldn't be taken until the end of August or the beginning of September.

The competition is just the same on Orkney as any other farming community, especially when it comes to cutting silage and baling grass or straw. I reckon Orkney will have the most McHale balers and wrappers in the country!

Are there any other struggles when it comes to getting work done?

– Rust on machinery is a major problem because we are so close to the sea and on a bad day, the salt spray can travel far. Everything has to be oiled and stored away to try and avoid this.

The salt spray can also kill out grass which means it's difficult to establish new grass and you usually have to patch it with the grass harrow.

Grey geese are another problem on Orkney, eating grass and cereals. They don't eat oats though so there are more and more farmers growing oats on the island. Although 90% of the cereals grown here is barley.

The last few years we have been in an Agri-Environment Scheme known as the Green Low Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme which means we cannot cut/top grass between March, 15 and July, 1. This can be a nightmare as we can't get silage cut until the first week of July and by then, everybody wants their silage cut.

Straw is a problem here too, not only in terms of shortage, but the quality is very poor to feed to cattle. You need to bale straw fresh just after being cut and then wrap and bale it straight away.

What work do you carry out throughout the year for your customers?

– We do everything from stubble to stubble. Everything in Orkney revolves around growing grass and grain to make feed for livestock. Spring is busy as we are only able to grow spring cows up here and the majority of that is barley. We recently sold our self-propelled chopper and bought two wagons for carting in silage. This has saved on labour, fuel and hassle!

What keeps you busy during the quiet spells?

– It's too long a winter and it's difficult to find jobs to keep you busy and see you through. Just recently (as of January, 11) we started a new contract, carting pot ale with a tanker from the Highland Park Distillery in Kirkwall. It's a year-round job which not only keeps us busy but generates income. There's still the cattle and sheep to attend to and maintenance jobs needing done though.

Favourite and least favourite piece of kit?

– I've two favourite pieces of kit because they have both changed the business for the better and improved efficiency. We bought two Strautmann forage wagons which have required less labour and less fuel compared to the self-propelled forager. The other is the McHale Fusion bale wrapper purchased in 2016. Silage season is such a busy time in Orkney and the Fusion has saved so much time as we can be baling as many as 8000 bales each year. Before, we used to wrap the bales in the field then bring them in and stack them in the steading. We couldn't be without the Fusion now.

My least favourite job is spreading slurry – you always get covered in the stuff! We used to spread slurry with an umbilical spreader and it was just a nightmare. It's sold now as we found it was more of a winter job and the fashion has changed now. It also clashed with jobs such as ploughing.

Oldest and newest piece of kit?

– Our Massey Ferguson five furrow plough is 18-years-old and it's still a big part of the business. The land here is easy on our machinery and we have free loamy soil in the west of the island so it's good to work with.

The newest piece of kit is a 180hp Massey Ferguson 7718 S tractor which boosts to 250hp. It'll work with the tanker (powered axle transmission) for the pot ale job. Before, we were running the New Holland on it, but the MF tractor can do 50,000k on landrive. It's a demo and has more comfort than the NH.

Which dealerships do you use to source machinery?

– John Deeres are bought from MLM engineering and Massey Fergusons come from Link Later engineering. Claas machinery is bought from J and W Tait.

We are very lucky in how many dealerships Orkney has.

What's the best tractor ever made?

– The John Deere 6310 SE is an exceptional tractor. We bought it brand new in 1999 and it was used over many silage seasons. When it reached 5500 hours we put a loader on it and then when it reached 12,000 hours in 2011 we traded it in for a JD 6330 top spec premium.

The JD 6330 always has an error on it and is more expensive to run than the old one!

How long do you keep your machinery for?

– Due to the John Deere being a harder tractor to buy, we buy ex demo and run them up to higher hours. Our JD 7530 has 8500 hours and we've no plans to sell it yet. It will probably be taken right up to 10,000 hours.

New Hollands and Massey Fergusons are more affordable, so we buy them new with extended warranty. The New Holland was traded in at 5000hours for the new Massey Ferguson.

Do you have a favourite and least favourite job?

– Marty: My least favourite job is spreading slurry because like I said, you get covered in shit and you smell like shit! I like ploughing though, especially on a bonnie day.

Duncy: I like combining on a bonnie day, but that kind of days happen once every few years!

Are there any tools in the workshop which couldn't live without?

– There isn't anything that stands out. Battery drills and grinders allow for quick repairs and welders are live savers at times too!

How has contracting changed?

– There is definitely more pressure when contracting now. You're competing against the weather and the competitors. The cost of machinery goes up and up all the time and you've got to be double kitted out to get the workload done.

Bales have such a big production on Orkney now, as there are only a few self-propelled foragers used for the dairy boys on the island. The smaller farms are going for bales while the bigger ones are pit.

The inventory:

Tractors New Holland T5060, Massey Ferguson 7718 S, John Deere 7530. A NH T6160 and NH T1785 are hired in throughout the busier periods.

Handlers CAT TH407C

Combines MF34 (1998) with a 16ft header and an NH CX680 (2012) with a 20ft header

Cultivation Four furrow Kuhn reversible plough, Massey Ferguson five furrow plough, 4m Kuhn power harrow, 4m Vaterstad drill, 6m grass harrow/seeder, Khun fertiliser spreader

Grass 4 1/2m Kuhn mower, Claas 9m grass tedder, Claas 270 rake

Balers Claas 2050 and McHale Fusion 3

Other kit 12t Bunning muck spreader, Major 2400 tanker and 2700 Primex tanker, two Strautmann tankers, BVL mixer wagon feeding wagon (10 cube), Teiglum 9090 beeder